I had a colonoscopy this week. Please don't stop reading--I will share no details! Routine colonoscopy, except that I have them every five years, instead of every 10, thanks to my mother who died of colon cancer and my own cancer history. All is well, I say gratefully. I am aware of how more time is devoted to routine maintenance procedures, such as a colonoscopy, as we age. Later this month I will have a routine check with my gynecologist and then a routine mammogram. This past fall I had routine check-ups with my internist, ophthalmologist, and dermatologist. And there are the ongoing visits to the dentist--routine cleanings and not so routine crowns. Let me say loud and clear how grateful I am for the excellent insurance coverage we have through my husband's work and the superb health care providers on our team.
Still, there is much to think about while my body remains healthy and strong. Therefore, I offer the introduction to my as yet unpublished essay, "Sacred Sickness, An Invitation to Grow Spiritually During Illness."
Yesterday I had a routine mammogram. In all the years of enduring annual mammograms only twice has there been a concern. I have little memory of the first time, but the second time, which was six months after surgery for uterine cancer, an ultrasound was ordered and then a biopsy, which, thankfully, revealed no cancer. Even though that false alarm is now years in the past and even though I had no reason to suspect a current problem, I still felt a tickle of anxiety the day of my appointment.
During my meditation time the morning of my appointment, I folded my hands across my breasts and thanked God for the nurturance they provided our babies and the sexual pleasure they have known. I offered thanks for their health and prayed, "May it be so." I offered blessings to all who have confronted breast cancer in their lives. "May your journey be filled with love and support." I remembered a long-ago friend who was always nervous about having a mammogram. We scheduled our appointments for the same time and then treated ourselves to chicken breast sandwiches afterwards. A sweet memory, and I hope all her mammograms in the years since we knew each other have been uneventful.
I give thanks for today's technician and for all those trained to squeeze, lift, press, arrange and handle this mass of tissue. I imagined the technician's routine words. "Remain still and don't breathe." I even prayed for a technician of pre-mammogram age who many years ago brought tears to my eyes with her less than tender skill, causing lingering pains for days following the procedure. Perhaps she was having a bad day, but as I sat in my car afterwards and rocked my body, hoping to relieve the soreness, I thought less than compassionate thoughts. "May you know what it is like to be treated so coldly, so impersonally. May you cringe. May you grimace. May you dread your own mammogram appointments. May you exhale a deep sigh of 'Thank God, that's over.'" I asked for belated forgiveness and hoped I have grown in compassion since then!
As I sat waiting to be called for my appointment, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply and widely and recalled the decision I made years ago when I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. I knew then I would do what I could do physically to eliminate the cancer from my body and to prevent its return, but I also knew my soul needed attention. How could I prevent the cancer from metastasizing into my soul?
I called upon Spirit to accompany me on that journey. I opened myself to the experience of illness as a time to deepen my spirituality, to grow wider, deeper into my relationship with God and to live a spiritual life, healthy or sick.
Now that I have been cancer free for many years, I say with the most grateful of hearts, I recognize that my experience with uterine cancer was a major practice session, a dress rehearsal, offering hints of what might yet be around the corner on this journey. The Buddhist tradition talks about "little deaths," or experiences that prepare us for bigger losses, including the loss of our own lives. My aging body has occasional aches and pains, and already I require more time in the health care system than when I was younger and when illness reappears, as more than likely it will in some form, I hope to meet it with a strong and wise spirit.
Therefore, as I sat in the waiting room, I took one more deep breath and filled my chest cavity with calm and repose and exhaled the whisper of anxiety and allowed myself to be present to this moment; a moment of health and life.